By Sue McCloskey
At first glance, South by Southwest (SXSW) might be the last place you think the dairy industry would be. The event is billed as a way to “celebrate the convergence of the interactive, film and music industries.”
Sounds like miles away from our farms, doesn’t it?
But, the purpose behind SXSW and the people who attend it in droves every year are exactly why we need to keep this event circled on our dairy calendars.
Every March, people from across the globe converge on Austin, Texas, for a 10-day glimpse into the future. This is the second consecutive year the dairy industry has participated in the interactive portion of SXSW, thanks to the vision of the farmer-founded Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
The interactive portion of SXSW has become a breeding ground for new ideas and creative technologies and typically draws nearly 40,000 attendees.
I have known about SXSW for some time, so there was no hesitation on my part when I was asked to be part of a panel discussion hosted by the Innovation Center titled “We Love Technology … Why Not When it Comes to Food?”
Is there anything more relevant than the use of technology – and consumers’ misunderstanding of it — for those of us who farm every day?
The level of innovation in our country and on our farms defines us as Americans. We’re innovators, big thinkers and we challenge the status quo. That’s what has made this country – and farming – great. Yet, that doesn’t always resonate with a skeptical public who feels technology compromises the integrity of the food they consume.
So, our panel’s goal was to explore this complex relationship between food, technology and consumer trust to an audience of people we know are generations removed from farming. Our discussion was open, and it allowed me to address misperceptions in food production and why farm technology matters to them.
My message is one you are familiar with: we farm, so they don’t have to. We are the 2 percent of the nation that rises each day to assure food security. We have the safest, most affordable and most abundant food supply in the world and technology allows this to happen. Farm technology means they don’t have to think about growing their own food and they are free to pursue the careers they choose. Many people nodded in agreement as I shared these words.
The people at SXSW are influencers and early adopters of change. Many also represented a younger generation, and they’re more open-minded than we sometimes give them credit for. In most cases, we were the first farmers they have ever met, and the reception was absolutely positive. They wanted to learn about us and have an exchange of ideas.
What may have been most surprising is I didn’t find people who had a disposition against dairy or the “big ag” claims we sometimes hear. Instead, I met people who were open to talking with me and the other eight dairy farmers in attendance. When people can look a farmer in the eye and have a conversation, there is a level of trust built, and that’s what we need more of.
The vibe at SXSW is contagious. There is such energy through a collaboration of open discussion and thought among some of the brightest people you may ever meet. Our industry opened new doors there.
There is great value of inserting ourselves in unexpected places.
Sue McCloskey is the founder of Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana and Fairlife milk.